Bula, Mom, Me & Memories

When I met Bula Birdsong, she’d been dead 32 years.

Now, please—don’t worry. This isn’t a ghost story. I met Bula figuratively—on the pages of her scrapbook. I found it while treasure hunting in antique shops in Lubbock, Texas, where I was living at the time. The worn volume—titled The Girl Graduate and dated May 27, 1907—chronicles Bula’s valedictory year at North Texas Female College, also referenced as Kidd-Key College, for anyone interested in the history of Texas universities. Upfront it’s inscribed with the class yell: “Razzle, dazzle, hobble, gobble; Sis! Boom! Bah! Senior class of nineteen-seven, Rah! Rah! Rah!” And the class motto: “To the stars through difficulties. Ad astra, per aspera.”

1907. A female college. Parchment-like newspaper clippings. Invitations and decorative bits from dances and events. A handwritten valedictory speech. All belonging to a young woman named BULA BIRDSONG. I was destined to possess this book! I can’t recall exactly what I paid, but I do remember it was more than my early twenty-something self should rightfully have been spending. Regardless of cost, Bula came home with me that afternoon.

I can peg the origins of my appreciation for personal relics pretty succinctly. My mom kept a scrapbook in high school, and as a kid (and even now, frankly), I was fascinated to flip its pages and piece together a fuller story of the person I knew one-dimensionally as “mom.” My mom documented her rather busy dating life in that scrapbook. Lots of pictures of boys captioned with details and exclamation points…and then there was one itty bitty photo of her future husband—my dad—captioned “Franklin Steelman, a boy I met in Hickory.” No exclamation point.

I made my first scrapbook in 8th grade, then one per year through high school, and a couple volumes to document college. Please note: the scrapbooking of my youth predates the crafty, curated era of scrapbooking-as-hobby you might be mentally defaulting to. My scrapbooks are personal histories—no cutesy stickers and such. I always included more than just photos and movie stubs. While most kids in school could identify in groups such as nerds, preps, jocks…I was best identified as the court jester of the show choir. No collective category for that, I’m afraid. This quirkiness is revealed in the oh-so random relics in my scrapbooks—buttons my pals and I made for our “Love a Lint” campaign, where we would affix bits of dryer lint to construction paper and hand them out in the hallways, inviting takers to “Love a Lint today!” or the remnants from when I was in charge of decorating the wall calendar in English class and opted for a “National Soup Month” theme, each day honoring a different, delightful flavor. Oh bless.

Every dab of glue and piece of scotch tape I used in those scrapbooks was motivated by the idea that one day my own daughter may study those pages and better come to know me. I always thought of that one day…that one day…

So, to find Bula’s scrapbook for sale in an antique shop, I wasn’t just intrigued. I felt an obligation. If no family members wanted her cherished memorabilia, I would become the caretaker, kind of like the daughter Bula may never have had.

Months later poring through dusty hardbacks at another far-away West Texas junktique shop, I made a heart-stopping discovery: the frayed-edge annual of Kidd-Key College 1904—Bula’s freshman yearbook. We cosmically converged again. Did I find her? Did she find me? OK, sure—the logical explanation is that various antique peddlers in the area had bought pieces of her estate . But to me, it was “ad astra”—to the stars! Bula and I were permanently intertwined.

About three years after Bula came into my life, I went through a personal trauma that started with a phone call late one night while the person I was married to was out of town. On the line was a woman asking to speak with him, and having been jarred from sleep, I groggily informed her he was out of town…could I take a message? She declined but called back moments later. Yes, she really should leave a message that she would not be able to make her date with him that weekend. As you might imagine, I was suddenly not groggy. “A date? Oh, you must have the wrong number.” “No, this is his number. We’ve been talking online. We have a date this weekend. You’re his sister, right?” No, no…I would be his wife. But not for long.

As I packed up my stuff in Texas to start anew in Tennessee, I surveyed a green faux leather foot locker full of shared memorabilia I’d been collecting with my soon-to-be ex. Since grown-up life had been so busy, I had not arranged anything in books or photo albums. Now I looked at all of that stuff as the marred remains of what had turned out to be a lie. I didn’t want to take this heap with me into my next chapter. So I packed only what was really just mine—including Bula’s books—and left that foot locker behind for him to deal with. I have no clue what became of any of it.

Many years after the incident I just described, my mom fell into bad health, and I had to move her from the state where she lived to assisted living here in my town. After making sure she was settled in her new digs, I faced the daunting task of cleaning out her house all by myself and selling it. It’s amazing how unsentimental I was when faced with the entire inventory of her personal stuff. I photo-documented everything before giving it to charity. Of course, I kept the obvious heirlooms, photo albums, jewelry, and the like. And then there was her scrapbook…this beloved thing by and of my mom, always all her hers and only mine to look at—now to be kept at my house. When my mom died last fall, that book was no longer hers, but all mine. I’m the keeper of her memories.

Ditto that for Bula. Bula’s been with me for going on 30 years now. In those years, as the internet becomes more populated with helpful tidbits, I’ve been able to “get to know” her better. She married Joe Bowman in 1909 (his signature is inconspicuously 4th from last on the guest list of those who attended her Commencement). Historically, he’s noted among the first to bring bus service to Texas and eventually was a magnate in the railroad business. Bula’s merely a concluding fact in his official biography. However, as foretold in the 1907 class giftorian’s bequeathing to Bula a ‘tablet and pencil to aid in taking notes for the construction of her railways…to be erected to Mars by way of Venus’, I feel quite certain she had an active hand in her husband’s successful transportation endeavors. They had no children.

I found record of Bula’s gravesite on findagrave.com, revealing she was born October 17th, 1887 (poetically, my birthday is October 16th!) and died April 2nd, 1962. After all these years since accepting the role as The Girl Graduate’s caretaker, I still have no children of my own. There’s nobody in line to inherit my random scraps and books of memories. Today, I’m less the daughter Bula never had and more a friend who’s been here to listen all along. I keep her memories, my mom’s, and my own. As for who might take the memories from here? I have no clue what will become of any of it.

“To the stars through difficulties…Ad astra, per aspera.”

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